It’s 2:27 in the morning. The whir of the fan and the sound of my husband’s breathing do little to quiet my thoughts. Instead of sleeping, I’ve spent the last three hours taking care of details associated with our imminent departure to Africa. I’ve contacted the American Embassy to let them know our itinerary (veiling my worry behind formal diction and carefully chosen punctuation that no one will be at the airport to expedite our arrival); I’ve written to two old friends from Niger for advice: Philo who’s working on a Ph.D. in Belgium, and Isabelle, who studied West African giraffes there for seven years but who’s now in the Pyrenees; and I’ve spoken through pauses and static to Illiasou, a friend in Niamey, who reports that he received the $600 I wired and secured us a place to live for the first month of our stay.
But the house we’ve rented has nothing in it: no stove, no fridge, no beds. So even though an hour ago I decided to put my computer away and go to sleep, I’m wide awake, fretting about how to buy a second hand refrigerator from 9,000 miles away.
Am I really doing this? Accepting a Fulbright fellowship and moving my family of five to what the United Nations calls the poorest country in the world? Taking my husband, an anxious traveler who’s never been in a developing country into a world of orange sands and nomads riding camels?
Niger is a Muslim country landlocked north of Nigeria, south of Algeria, east of Mali, and west of Chad. To the north is the encroaching Sahara desert. I applied for this teaching research fellowship because I worked in Niger years ago. And I’ve always wanted my three children to experience living overseas and become fluent in French. But Fulbrights are so competitive I didn’t think I stood a chance. Even now that we have our yellow fever vaccine, our visas, our lists of things to pack, it all seems somehow unreal.
My brother tells my mother that he doesn’t believe that he and I shared the same womb, that he would never take his children to Africa, and can’t understand why I’m doing this. But when he calls me I remind him that he was in that womb in Ghana. Pregnant, my mother spent a summer there with her then six and eight-year-old sons in tow, developing an African primary science program. “Maybe that explains things,” he says and we both laugh.
Once when I was sailing with a friend, I saw a man struggling to move his boat out of the water and onto a trailer. Waist deep in water, he couldn’t quite manage. He got out of the water and backed up his truck, repositioning the trailer to make it easier. After twenty minutes of wrestling and finessing, he finally finagled the boat into the right position and secured it, his truck engine roaring as he hauled the boat up the ramp. It struck me that transitions are the hardest. On the landing but not yet out of the water, the boat was neither a boat nor a passenger, just an unwieldy thing poised between two worlds.
That’s how we are now. We have one foot in America, living among boxes headed for storage. The other foot is in Africa, amid piles of books and first aid supplies destined for half a world away.
Thirteen years ago, after working as the small project coordinator for Africare/Niger I wasn’t ready to leave Niamey. Instead I got a job as the editor of the Sahel-o, a newsletter for the Embassy community. I moved out of my apartment to housesit chez Isabelle, who was going to France for several months. Isabelle had a Belgian friend with a three-year-old and I invited her daughter to play with my friend Ousseina’s three-year-old niece Hadiza.
“Okay,” her mom agreed. “But I’ll pick her up before lunch. She mustn’t eat or drink anything while she’s there.”
Hadiza and Justine, both headstrong little girls, played for hours, stomping around the courtyard giggling and taking turns pushing a handmade car on the patio. Then the family cook brought out steaming plates of pounded millet and meat sauce, and Ousseina’s uncle and aunt invited us to eat.
Justine marched up to the smaller table and sat down.
“Your mother said you mustn’t eat,” I looked at Ousseina helplessly. She smiled at me and raised her eyebrows.
“Je suis venue pour ça!” Justine insisted, expertly rolling a ball of millet in her right hand like an African. “That’s what I’m here for!” She and Hadiza, already old friends with long-shared secrets, ignored us grown-ups and ate great chomps of the spicy delicious lunch.
That image — of blond-haired blue-eyed Justine defying her mother’s prejudice and sitting with ease and grace at her host’s table — reassures me that the logistics will work themselves out, the suitcases will be packed, the prescriptions filled, the one-way rental car reserved. If they’re as lucky as Justine, my children, too, will one day accept the generous hospitality of Nigerien friends.